From My Past: Obsession—John Duka, The Passion of Fashion

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“One of the requisite skills for sitting at a fashion show is being able to roll your eyes, talk to the person behind you, chew mints and say, ‘Yves Saint Laurent did it better years ago,’ all at once.” —John Duka, “Notes on Fashion”

As a young gay man in New York in the early 1970s, despite my leftist, revolutionary political leanings, I was crazy about style and clothes. That is, genuine clothes, not the throw-away H&M dreck we have now. My whole generation was. Young gay boys landing in New York wanted to work in fashion and be the next Calvin Klein, the way that they now want to be the next Tim Cook. Clothes were total sex, sometimes even better than sex, which to me is saying eons. Clothes went with nightclubbing, disco, drugs, gorgeous women, and the men who buzzed around them, and, of course, buzzed around each another.

Fashion was romantic; it was delicious sexy youngmen in fur coats in the back seats of cabs; weekends on Fire Island and summers in Provincetown. Fashion had not become chewed up by the cult of corporate-run celebrity. You could touch it and the bodies underneath it.

There was a raft of young, hip, hot gay fashion designers like the wonderful Stephen Burrows who was openly gay. And Halston and Perry Ellis who weren’t. The spectacular, traffic-stopping Henri Bendel’s window designer Robert Currie; and, of course, Calvin himself.

John Duka, was an extremely gifted writer at that time who was one of the first male writers to write precisely and often poignantly about fashion for the New York Times. I was in absolute rapture with his writing. Duka epitomized everything that was glamorous, glitzy, crazy, wild, snotty, and queer about that still galloping beau monde known as New York fashion.

I read Duka’s column, “Notes on Fashion,” like a religious text, and shared it often with my more arty friends. One of them came up with a perfect verb—to “Duka-ize” something: to make it even more fabulous than it was.

By 1985, Duka was no longer writing for the Times but had started KCD (for Kezia Keeble, a stylist; Paul Cavaco, and John Duka) a fashion publicity business that eventually became the most powerful fashion PR agency in the city. KCD was known for innovation and professionalism. Previously, fashion publicity had been all air—three-hour lunches, champagne popping, and the “Best Dressed” list—with little actual information about clothes or the events around them. KCD changed that, making a special point of featuring the clothes first. One of its hallmarks was that KCD employees wore black to fashion events, in order not to upstage the clothes. Very soon, black became New York’s own edgy hip color, with the city starkly darkened in it.

When John Duka died in 1989, the Times said that he had died of “pneumonia,” always questionable. Young men, basically, did not die of pneumonia. No one wanted to admit he had died of HIV complications. It hit me a like a ton of bricks, even though we had never met. I thought about him constantly—I wanted to write about him but had no idea where to begin.

On a whim, I called KCD, and spoke to Paul Cavaco (John’s business partner who was also, privately, personally involved with him), who spoke to me extremely honestly for almost an hour, detailing John’s life, his own, and the agency’s. What he told me was pretty scorching; a lot of it had to do with the bigotry at the Times (which has only just admitted this month that he died of AIDS), and in the times—this turbulent, difficult period when gay men in the face of AIDS were jumping out of the closet, even as the straight world out of “concern” for itself and “family values,” was trying to hammer it back shut. I told him that I was thinking about editing a collection of John’s work and he said that would be impossible—the New York Times would not allow it.

Postscript: Duka was probably the model for Felix Turner, the closeted New York Times writer in Larry Kramer’s play THE NORMAL HEART. Larry Kramer has never really disclosed if he had been, and KCD, in the middle of the high-money-stakes fashion industry, was still wary of anything getting out about John.